It feels strange penning a coaching obituary for a man who has five Big Ten regular-season championships and a pair of Final Fours on his resume before his 50th birthday—and yet here we are. So much negativity consumed the last few months of Thad Matta’s tenure—the embarrassing season-ending loss to Rutgers, the departures of David Bell, JaQuan Lyle and Trevor Thompson, and the shocking decommitment of top recruit Darius Bazley—that Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith decided enough was enough with his men’s basketball program at its recent nadir.
On and off the court, the Buckeyes had lost their way. In the past 5 seasons, the product on the floor gradually went from Elite 8 contender to missing the NIT; the product off the floor consisted of mass exoduses and negative recruiting revolving around the health of Matta. To make matters worse, the Buckeyes struggled getting the best talent in the state—which is really weird when you actually unpack its meaning. The flagship university of Ohio, with one of the best athletic departments in the country and a head coach who has trekked squads deep into March, had problems finding ways for Mr. Ohio, the basketball star in each recruiting class, to attend the school in the heart of the Buckeye State. Compared to what Urban Meyer is doing with football, making it a goal to keep Buckeye State talent from hopping out of state, it’s a conundrum to why Matta couldn’t get the future to commit to OSU.
Of course, basketball is a different animal than football in terms of roster size and scholarship allotments. And though Ohio State hoops does own its fair share of success and nostalgia, it does not retain some of the monikers—“powerhouse”, “bluebood”, etc—many associate with collegiate greatness. And that’s curious in a sense, because for a (mostly concurrent) half-decade or so, Ohio State basketball was an elite program—and Matta was the driving force behind that surge.
From 2010-13, the Buckeyes won at least a share of three Big Ten regular season crowns; appeared in four Big Ten Tournament title games (prevailing three times); and reached four Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four. There’s an argument to be made that Matta had two of the best recent college basketball teams that didn’t win the NCAA Tournament. The Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr.-fueled 2006-07 team finished 35-4, swept the Big Ten and lost just twice after the new year, with one of those defeats a loss in the national championship game to a historically-good Florida Gators squad. The 2010-11 squad, powered by been-there seniors and stud freshman Jared Sullinger, started 24-0 en route to a 34-3 finish. The unit swept the Big Ten’s regular season and postseason titles before a shocking trip-up on a last-second shot by Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight in the Sweet 16.
Thanks for everything you did for Ohio State University Men's Basketball, Thad.Posted by Land-Grant Holy Land - For Ohio State fans on Monday, June 5, 2017
That run of sustained success could happen again in a shorter spurt, but the next Ohio State coach is unlikely to match Matta’s longevity. By stealing Oden and Conley Jr. out of Indianapolis, the Buckeyes caught lightning in a bottle with a young coach who happened to form a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting connection from his days as Butler’s head man, while Indiana was floundering in the final years of the Mike Davis era.
There is a blueprint for success at Ohio State, and while some of the names being thrown out for the job are ridiculous, there is a reason Smith should be aiming high in his search for Matta’s successor. To highlight some of the reasons Matt Brown noted in his spirited pitch for the Buckeyes’ opening, Ohio State is backed by LeBron/Nike’s considerable financial might, they practice in a new facility, the Big Ten is annually one of the sport’s top conferences and most of the games are on television. Once things stabilize with the program, the Buckeyes will be in the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis and should contend for conference titles every few seasons.
The Buckeyes would be wise to select a coach who works in a similar way to Matta when he was rolling from 2010-13. Sure, Matta convinced a handful of elite prospects (Oden, Conley Jr., D’Angelo Russell) that had no business playing college hoops at a football school to come to Columbus, but Matta was at his best when he focused his recruiting efforts on Ohio and the Midwest, and then cherry-picked from the national scene. Toward the end, Matta and his staff lost their way chasing the shiny national kids while local stars like Caris LeVert, Vince Edwards, Esa Ahmad and others wound up elsewhere.
The end was unfortunate and ugly, but Ohio State could do a whole lot worse than try to hire the next Thad Matta.